RasenBallsport Leipzig – Bayer Leverkusen: Stuttering Leipzig Fail to Respond to First Half Leverkusen Blitz (1-3)
Following a first half in which Florian Wirtz and Moussa Diaby gave Bayer Leverkusen the early lead, substitute manager Achim Beierlorzer’s changes made RB Leipzig much more competitive in an engaging second half. That lasted till Gerardo Seoane made a few key changes of his own, as Leverkusen coasted what was ultimately a comfortable win over an inconsistent Leipzig side.
Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra.
With Bayern Leverkusen starting a new chapter under Gerardo Seoane and RB Leipzig entering a rebuild under Jesse Marsch, this was a game to determine how the two sides in their pursuit of Champions League qualification. Stumbling after a red-hot start, Leverkusen have seemed to get back on track after soundly beating Real Betis in the Europa League. On the other hand, Leipzig’s inconsistency has dampened enthusiasm surrounding their coach, who along with first choice goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi contracted COVID-19 that kept him out of the game. Still, this was an important game, and stand-in coach Achim Beierlorzer undoubtedly received a raft of instructions from Marsch as he prepared the team for this tie.
Leipzig’s team selection contained a surprise in the form of Brian Brobbey, who partnered André Silva up top in the hosts’ 4-4-2 diamond formation. At the tip of the diamond was Christopher Nkunku, who was supported by Emil Forsberg and Konrad Laimer form he sides and Kevin Kampl at the base. Lukas Klostermann and Joško Gvardiol was the center-back pairing of choice, and they were flanked by Angeliño and Nordi Mukiele.
Gerardo Seoane picked a more familiar side in his 4-2-3-1 shape. Lukáš Hrádecký was protected by a defense of Jonathan Tah and Edmond Tapsoba, who were flanked by Piero Hincapié and Jeremie Frimpong. The double pivot consisted of Robert Andrich and Exequiel Palacios, who supported the attacking quartet of Patrik Schick, Moussa Diaby, Florian Wirtz and Amine Adli.
Leverkusen grab the early lead
Under Jesse Marsch, it is clear that Leipzig continue to be a strong pressing team. This game was no different, as the hosts pressed from a 4-4-2 diamond shape. With the strikers guiding play into the fullbacks, Leipzig swarmed the ball carrier in their characteristic ball-oriented fashion. Forsberg, Silva and Kampl were eager participants when the ball was on Leverkusen’s left, with the high line meaning that Mukiele pressed the dropping winger. It worked initially, as Leipzig looked more dangerous due to their ability to force turnovers than when they were in possession.
However, Leverkusen clearly prepared for this and did not shrink from the challenge. There was a concerted effort to build play on the left, using the quartet of Hincapié, Andrich, Adli and Schick. If Hincapié had time, the play would build patiently in a bid to lure Leipzig into overloading the side of the ball. It was possible to play through Leipzig given the number of Leverkusen players on the side, and Andrich often slipped between the center-backs to provide a base for recirculation of the play. Additionally, playing down the left meant that Leipzig devoted more resources to that side, thereby leaving an underload on the far side where right back Frimpong had a higher starting position. With Diaby cutting inside from the right, there was a possibility of placing Angeliño in a two-versus-one situation if play was circulated quickly.
Scene showing Leverkusen’s preparation for playing the pass to the right. Note the amount of space available to Frimpong on the right.
On the other hand, if there was no time, Hincapié would launch the ball forward to Schick, whose ability to win aerial duels was key in ensuring that Leverkusen retained the ball and immediately target Adli who would run in behind Mukiele when Schick came out for the ball.
These types of sudden movements were more effective than patient play for Leverkusen, since Leipzig were relatively comfortable in stymying the visitors’ forward progress. In fact, Leverkusen’s initial opener came from precisely such a sequence, as Adli raced in behind after Mukiele made an error in jumping on Palacios. The midfield calmly played it through Schick whose layoff was perfectly placed, resulting in a goal for Diaby after Adli crossed to him. However, it was chalked off for an offside, leaving it to Wirtz to open the scoring with a strong finish after holding off Angeliño’s contest in the box.
Issues with the Leipzig offense
One of the downsides of the 4-4-2 diamond shape is the lack of natural width, which forces the fullbacks to provide the width in advanced areas. This was not a problem for Leipzig on the left, where Angeliño’s overlapping and crossing abilities make him a consistent threat from the wing. Things are less certain on the right, where Mukiele’s pace and dynamism make him a threat though not to the same extent as his counterpart on the left. Still, Leipzig were at their most fluent when Nkunku and Angeliño were on the left, as compared to when the Frenchman roamed the pitch. This is because of the passing lanes that exist with the left back on the wing and Nkunku in the halfspace, with Kampl and Laimer able to connect the left with Forsberg and Mukiele on the right.
Leipzig’s most dangerous set-up in the first half.
While these situations did not immediately lead to successful box entry, Brobbey and Silva offered little in possession. Brobbey was taken off before the end of the first half for Dominik Szoboszlai, whose introduction seemed to signal a shift to the more familiar 4-2-3-1 shape that Leipzig have consistently deployed.
Second half tweaks bring rapid momentum shifts
Following Szoboszlai’s introduction, the anticipated switch to the 4-2-3-1 shape did not occur. In the early moments, it was hard to understand Leipzig’s plan, but it became clear soon enough that the hosts had changed to an asymmetric 3-1-4-2 structure. In this formation, Mukiele tucked into the defensive line while Angeliño held the width on the left, leading to a shape that was extremely oriented towards the left flank.
Nkunku moved up to be part of the forward line, but his frequent dropping movements meant that he offered a lot more in the halfspace and on the wing than Brobbey had done. Szoboszlai effectively took up Nkunku’s position in the halfspace, but positions were fluid as specific zones were continuously occupied regardless of personnel. Forsberg and Laimer controlled the right, where Laimer often took up deeper positions to allow Forsberg to utilize his creativity near the box.
Leipzig’s opener came from an Nkunku cross, where he cut in from the left and crossed to the near post for Silva. Leverkusen were static and slow to react to Silva’s darting movement, resulting in a goal that threatened to embolden Leipzig. But Seoane was wary, bringing on Charles Aránguiz and Odilon Kossonou for Adli and Schick respectively. Leverkusen now shifted to a 5-3-2 shape with Hincapié and Frimpong acting as wingbacks. Diaby and Wirtz became the forwards, and the change worked perfectly as Frimpong scored after Leverkusen recovered the ball in midfield and began a quick transition. 3-1, and Leipzig’s second wind was snuffed as quickly as it had begun.
The first half was a relatively calm affair, punctuated by two strong finishes from Wirtz and Diaby to give Leverkusen an early lead. Despite Leverkusen’s efforts, the press from Leipzig was consistent and effective, but lacked the box defending necessary to back it up. Tweaks in the second half made it an interesting affair, but Leverkusen’s third goal – and changed structure – was enough to stop Leipzig’s enthusiasm and contain their offense.
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